Whenever a new year is around the corner, automotive publications love to tell you about the cars you can soon legally import into America. We even did one with some Autopian flair. There appears to be one car we all missed, and it’s one that seems to punch well above its weight. The Citroën Xantia Activa looks like your everyday French family car, but thanks to Citroën’s suspension wizardry, this car outhandles supercars even today. And for nearly 24 years it’s held the record as the fastest car to smash the infamous moose test. Today, this Gallic Grocery-Getting Gladiator can be in your cheeseburger-loving hands!
Welcome back to Holy Grails, the Autopian series where we show off some of the coolest, most underrated cars you love. Readers from all over are voicing their opinions on what they think is a holy grail. Some submissions thus far have been just regular cars but in a desirable configuration. Two of you have sent in holy grails that meet the definition even in the strict sense. Those two submissions are for vehicles so rare that no pictures or verifiable information seem to exist about them, which is absolutely incredible. Research is still needed on those two.
Last time, reader PlayswellwithNOthers submitted what appeared to be a controversial pick with other readers. The Audi A6 has long been known for offering buyers a mid-sizer with a variety of body and engine options. Throughout the A6’s generations, you could get yourself a luxury sedan powered with engines like a 2.7-liter twin-turbo V6, a 4.2-liter V8, and even a lovely 5.2-liter V10. You could get your A6 as a sedan, a wagon, or the legendary/infamous Allroad.
But the one that PlayswellwithNOthers wants you to consider is the Audi A6 Avant 3.0T. Sold from 2009 to 2011, this was a wagon featuring a supercharged 300 HP V6. It had the performance of a V8 and the fuel economy of a V6. Just 1,066 were sold, making them a rare bird. However, because of the sole transmission choice of automatic and its middling performance compared to the competition, many readers weren’t sold that this was a true grail.
Today’s car isn’t a hot rod. It’s not a supercar or a skunkworks build, either. Instead, it’s a French family car, and one with a trick feature that makes it a marvel even decades later.
Back in 1954, Citroën introduced a novel suspension system on a version of its Traction Avant. In the Traction Avant 15H (15/6 in the UK), the rear axle effectively rode on Liquide Hydraulique Synthétique, or LHS fluid. This early version of Citroën’s hydropneumatic suspension allowed drivers to level the rear suspension using a lever. The Traction Avant had a belt-driven high-pressure pump for that LHS fluid.
Just a year later, Citroën used what it learned with the Traction Avant and applied it to the novel Citroën DS, one of the most high-tech cars ever made when it was new. The hydropneumatic suspension installed in the DS is still a marvel even today. UK vintage car magazine Classics World explains how the system works:
The heart of the Citroën system is a high-pressure hydraulic pump, driven by belt from the engine like a conventional power steering pump. The pump produces a constant pressure of LHM (liquide hydraulique minérale) fluid and is engaged and disengaged by a solenoid-operated clutch. Hydraulic fluid under pressure is stored in an accumulator sphere from where it can be drawn off as required from a kind of hydraulic ‘ring main’ running round the car.
At the business end, each suspension arm is attached to a pushrod with a sphere on one end and a piston on the other end moving in a cylinder. Fluid can pass from the sphere into the cylinder according to the position of a height control device, while pressurised nitrogen gas in one half of the sphere provides the springing effect. A shock absorber effect is achieved by using a restriction between the cylinder and the sphere.
The clever bit is the height control and it’s very simple: it’s essentially a valve attached to the anti-roll bar, one at the front and one at the rear. As the suspension drops, the valve allows more hydraulic fluid into that end in order to raise the suspension and when it reaches the correct point then the valve closes. Similarly, if the suspension is too high, the valve releases pressure back to the reservoir. A dashboard lever allows the position of the valves to be manually adjusted in order to raise and lower the car.
Early versions of Citroën’s system utilized the aforementioned liquide hydraulique synthétique. However, this fluid had a nasty habit of picking up water and dust, causing rot. Later, Citroën would switch to liquide hydraulique minérale, a green-dyed mineral fluid. When our man Jason tested a DS Break back in 2015, he noted that LHS/LHM isn’t just in the suspension system but is effectively the lifeblood of a DS, and you’ll find it in the clutch, steering, and even the powerful brakes. If you’re interested in a ridiculously-detailed explanation of how this suspension works, the enthusiasts of Citroënët have archived a 29-page brochure from Citroën. That brochure explains that Citroën pursued hydropneumatic suspensions not just as a solution to poor ride comfort on rough roads, but the disadvantages of a typical coil-spring suspension, namely the fact that the vehicle rides high when unloaded.
What does any this have to do with Citroën’s family car from about four decades later? Well, for the Citroën Xantia, the automaker eventually cranked its signature suspension system up to 11.
According to Citroënët, the Xantia (pronounced “zan-ti-a”) got its start in 1987 when Citroën began “Projet X,” the search for the replacement for the plastic body Citroën BX. There were three competing projects for the design, one by PSA, one by Citroën, and the last by Bertone. The Bertone design won out and was chosen for production. In spring 1993, the Xantia hit the road, impressing with its gorgeous timeless design. As the UK’s RAC writes, within months, the Xantia was voted “Europe’s Most Beautiful Car.”
That’s all good, but the version that we’re here for is the one that Citroën itself says is the most memorable. Introduced in late 1994, the top of the Xantia line was the Activa. This took what was already a pretty family car and put it on another level. This is the one that reader Peter says is a true holy grail:
I’m a little bit of a Citroen nut (own a BX Gti myself) and a fan of the weird, but very effective hydropneumatic suspension Citroen are famous for. The Xantia was brought out as the replacement for the BX, and, was a fairly normal (by citroen standards) family car, bar the hydropneumatic suspension, and was fairly popular; used to see quite a few about, although they’re getting a bit thin on the ground nowadays (at least in the UK). There were a few different variants of the hydropneumatic suspension fitted to them, ranging from the basic 5-sphere (1 per wheel, plus the accumulator sphere) up to the flagship Activa, which, in my eyes, represents the peak of Citroen’s suspension obsession. The Activa had 10 spheres, including spheres connected to hydraulics on the anti-roll bars, the first active cross-stabiliser system fitted to a road car, and was computer controlled, varying the damping etc. based on the steering, throttle, roll angle etc, locking the roll of the car to ~1°. This left it with road holding that outpaced many supercars of the time, pulling 0.94g on a skidpad in testing, and setting a record speed through the moose test at 53mph (it’s often stated as still holding the record, however there’s a bit of debate there, as I believe the testing procedure has changed, making it harder for more modern cars)
Regarding the rest of the car, the activa suspension was available with a few different engines, topping out with the 188hp 3.0 V6. Outer changes were pretty minimal, with a small spoiler, alloys, and “Activa” badging.
The Activa was never a particularly common version (<2600 V6 models were made), as I think the extremely complicated suspension put people off, and limited parts availability and costly repairs killed off many of those; so there’s only a handful left on the roads these days.
If anything, Peter is actually underselling just how amazing the Xantia Activa is. As reported by Hagerty UK, when French magazine L’Automobile tested this family car, it pulled more lateral G on the skidpad than supercar legends. A Honda NSX pulled 0.93g while a Ferrari 512TR came in at 0.92g. The Xantia Activa? It recorded a respectable 0.94g. The family hatch was beaten by a Toyota Supra recording 0.95g and a Ferrari F40 hitting 1.01g, but remember, this isn’t even a sports car that we’re talking about here.
Indeed, just as Peter says above, the Xantia Activa took the hydropneumatic suspension concept to the extreme. A highlight of the Xantia Activa’s system was the Systeme Citroën de Contrôle Actif de Roulis, or SC.CAR. This was the active anti-roll bar system that worked to keep body roll to no greater than 0.5 degrees using three ECUs and a set of sensors. When you entered a corner, the SC.CAR first blocked out the suspension spheres, which would normally soften the ride. Then, if the computers determined that roll would increase to greater than 0.5 degrees, fluid was fed into hydraulic rams, adjusting the anti-roll bars and keeping the car level.
The Xantia Activa’s magic was that it was supposed to be comfortable on rough roads and in normal driving, just like the Citroëns before it. But with this complex, 10-sphere system, when you push it through a corner it tightens up, giving you greater tire contact patches and better grip. Citroën reportedly advertised a 20 percent improvement in grip with a Xantia Activa.
And to further drill home how good this suspension setup is, we have the infamous moose test. As the name suggests, this test measures how well a vehicle can avoid an obstacle—like an animal—and return to its path of travel. Swedish car magazine Teknikens Värld has been doing these tests since the 1970s, and in doing them rolled a first-generation Mercedes-Benz A-Class and got a Jeep Grand Cherokee on two wheels. But the car to complete the magazine’s test the fastest? According to its database, a Citroën Xantia Activa V6 set a record of about 53 mph in 1999, a record that has yet to be beaten.
And it’s not like Teknikens Värld doesn’t test capable cars. The list includes everything from Porsche 911s to the Chevrolet Corvette, various McLarens, and even a Ferrari Testarossa. None of them have completed the test as fast as a Xantia Activa.
However, I should note that some enthusiasts question the validity of Teknikens Värld’s tests, since the magazine tests by its own standards. A different moose test just last year by a different organization showed a Xantia Activa that couldn’t complete a moose test at 43 mph without knocking down cones. Though, the vehicle in the test was at least two decades old.
Sadly, the suspension and style are really the best parts of the Xantia Activa. Until 1997, the best engine available was a 2.0-liter turbocharged four that made 150 HP and 173 lb-ft torque. In 1997, Citroën released a 2.9-liter V6 as an option. At first, this made 188 HP, but by the time it was discontinued in 2000, it was making 194 HP. But it wasn’t that light, being a 14.5-foot car that weighed 3,198 pounds. This was good for acceleration to 60 mph in about 8 seconds and a top speed of 140 mph. And perhaps crucially, it was available with a manual transmission.
Citroën says that it produced 1,528,000 Xantias between 1993 and 2002 (more would be built in Iran until 2010). Of that 1,528,000 lot, just 18,000 were Activas. And of that number, under 2,600 are believed to have the V6. As reported by PistonHeads, the Xantia has actually fallen into obscurity, and if you can find one, it’ll probably be dirt cheap. But finding one may be tough, in that 2014 PistonHeads piece, just 41 of them were operational in the UK, with a further 40 off of the road. It’s not known exactly why there are so few survivors, but Hagerty UK may give a hint when it talks about how the cars weren’t easy to care for two decades ago when parts were thin and knowledgeable help was equally thin. The suspension system may have been close to magic, but someone still had to keep it going.
As far as America goes, these were never officially imported here, but the earliest Xantias were eligible for importation back in 2018. The earliest Activas were eligible just a year later. I found one that sold here (above) for just $5,200, but it wasn’t an Activa or a V6. The good news is that many Xantias are old enough to import, so if you can find one that runs, you’ll almost certainly have a rare ride.
Do you know of a ‘holy grail’ of a car out there? If so, we want to read about it! Send us an email at email@example.com and give us a pitch for why you think your favorite car is a “holy grail.”